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I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine recently, where I posited that George R. Martin, of Game of Thrones fame, had irrevocably changed Fantasy fiction forever by bringing to light the inherent problematic aspects of a fantasy world and examining those issues without pulling his punches. He asked me if I thought that his change was reflected in young adult fantasy, too, and I had to think about it.
Arguably, children’s fiction is historically entrenched in fantasy. John Goldthwaite examines this in detail in his book The Natural History of Make-Believe, which looks at the history of children’s fantasy fiction from Perrault forward, and I would recommend this book to anyone studying children’s literature (despite his disdain for Narnia). If we talk about the history of children’s books, we’re talking about books like Alice in Wonderland, The Water-Babies, Peter and Wendy and even books like The Chronicles of Narnia, despite the fact that these books are probably in the minority of the genre that comprise children’s literature as a whole. But if we examine just the history of fantasy novels, there’s a clear progression from the didactic lectures of The Water-Babies to The Chronicles of Narnia, but after the 70s and 80s, things begin to get a little murky – possibly because of Dianna Wynne Jones, whose excellent Chrestomanci and Howl (or maybe, more accurately, Sophie Hatter) books began to change the perception of children’s fantasy by poking holes in tropes, or because of the inception of American children’s fantasy with authors like Tamora Pierce.
It’s Tamora Pierce who holds a particularly interesting place in young adult fantasy. Her first novels were not originally intended for a child audience, but were then edited down from adult to young adult fiction, which was probably to her benefit. Alanna is an excellent young female protagonist (although admittedly, with purple eyes, magic, divine intervention and two handsome and well-placed love interests, the definition of a Mary-Sue) because she is brave, assertive, stubborn, and in a genre where brave, assertive and stubborn girls often need to be rescued in a strange kind of inversion of feminism, she does a majority of the saving.
But the Lioness quartet was fairly standard fantasy fare, where war and violence was kept relatively at arms length – Alanna may have engaged in violence, but it was the kind of violence that didn’t examine violence for the sake of the examination (which is, arguably, what Martin has tried to shift the fantasy genre towards). Instead it has violence as an aspect of being a knight, and is more focused on topics like destructive patriarchy and misogyny as an inherent feature of fantasy world. In fact, Pierce has been pretty consistent in trying to deliver female protagonists in her Tortall books whose mission is to dismantle the notions of male superiority, and she’s been relatively good at doing it.
But it’s the evolution of her work – from the misadventures of a lady knight who spent her first 8 years as a knight-in-training disguised as a boy to her most current works, which are aware of, and examine issues like cultural misogyny even in kingdoms ruled by women (The Will of the Empress) to the inception of PTSD from war and atrocities (Battle Magic) that begin to demonstrate the real evolution of fantasy from the relatively innocent world of Narnia and Neverland into something more sophisticated an adult. It would have been impossible for for work like Battle Magic to exist without Alanna, but I suspect that it’s not Martin’s world (which, incidentally, was being released around the same time as the Pierce’s early work) but more due to Harry Potter and the observation made by editors that children were in fact capable of not only reading but processing what were previously adult themes.
I hesitate to bring Harry Potter into this post because the analysis of Harry Potter and the impact that Rowling has on the publishing of children’s fiction is a post on its own. But I do think, thinking on this as a whole, adult fiction does inform children’s work, as any majority influences a minority.
More on children’s fiction as minority fiction in my next post.